AUGUSTA — After more than an hour of discussion on Tuesday, the Augusta Planning Board delayed its decision on a plan to redevelop the Olde Federal Building.
Council members had a range of concerns – from plans to develop rooftop facilities, including a bar, to the potential reduction in retail space at 295 Water Street – on which they wanted more input. information before making a decision.
The Goldman Group, a Greater Boston-based property development and management firm, submitted a plan that would convert the historic building’s existing offices into luxury apartments with tenant amenities and preserve some retail space.
Alison Nichols, Chair of the Planning Council, said she liked this project on so many levels.
“But we’re being asked to approve something for what people have been talking about like Augusta’s heart with not much to do,” Nichols said. “We haven’t seen the plans for the bar. We have not seen the final plans. I want to say that we are really excited and we really like this project, but I feel like we need more details before saying yes.
The building, located in the Water Street Historic District, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Catherine Cobb, secretary to the board, said she would like to see concept plans for how developers will fit into what they want – even if that has to change in the development process – and more concrete plans on the development of the roof.
“There are a lot of unknowns and we’re used to having something more concrete,” Nichols said.
Ari Goldman, who presented the project on behalf of the Goldman Group, said the building is currently under contract, with closing expected in mid-January and a deadline to complete its due diligence in mid-December.
“Our goal is to find out if this is something the city is interested in,” Goldman said. “Is this something we can feel comfortable and confident moving forward with?”
He said when he first saw the real estate ad, he knew his business had to visit.
“We were really impressed that buildings like this exist in the area and we might have the opportunity to be part of the building’s history,” he said.
But he and his partners must also be realistic about taking on the project.
“We are a business. We can only undertake the project if we can make a profit,” he said. “We cannot operate at a loss.
As it stands, the developers propose to convert around half of the building into 30 luxury residential units – three studios, 16 one-bedroom, nine two-bedroom and two three-bedroom. The existing U.S. Postal Service office would remain, and other space would be set aside for a small grocery store and other retail stores.
While the residential space would only be about half the building area, several units would be in the floodplain, raising the question of whether they would be permitted.
Other concerns raised among members of the public included cutting off access to the building by converting offices to apartments and adding more apartments at market price when more affordable housing is needed.
Matthew Pouliot, a state senator and realtor who owns and developed property on Water Street, said converting the building into residences was the only feasible option.
“I know a lot of people want to see a boutique hotel, but hotel funding is abysmal,” he said.
While acknowledging that the state lacks affordable apartments, he said he has moved to smaller residential spaces in his own building to keep rents more affordable and he suggested developers consider this.
“It’s part of the rise of all boats,” he said. “All accommodation is good; we don’t choose winners and losers.
Richard Parkhurst, who developed two buildings with 19 residential units and six commercial spaces in downtown Augusta, said he favors responsible development.
“I just want to make this point,” Parkhurst said. “It cost me three times as much to convert an apartment on Water Street as it did to build an apartment complex on Civic Center Drive. The cost (of housing) has to go up or we will continue to have empty buildings on Water Street.
The board voted to defer the matter until the December 13 meeting so the Goldman Group can provide more details of its plans.